Don’t Grow Clover, Hay, Oats, (Corn)? De-Bunking a Farmer Bashing Myth

“Socrates is a Man.

All Men are Mortal.

Therefore Socrates is Mortal.”



“Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”


“Please, please, don’t eat the daisy’s.”

Doris Day


Don’t Grow Clover, ‘Hay,’ Oats, (Corn)?  De-Bunking a Farm Bashing Myth


Farmers grow a whole lot of hay.  Hay is not a human food, however.  That is not, however, to suggest that farmers should NOT grow hay.  And yet, it seems, the food activists of today would make exactly that argument, you know, just add it in with a bunch of other arguments, if they had the chance.  


When people have big concerns of any kind, it’s tempting to create a long laundry list of concerns.  Typically most items on such a list won’t be mentioned, except when there is some big concern at a given moment in time.  Perhaps it’s just human nature.  When there is a big concern people seem to say, “Why not make it a vent fest, and draw out the whole laundry list.”


My argument her is that this is happening in the Good Food Movement, and a lot of  illogical arguments are getting added in.  Unfortunately, it makes the advocates look bad, and takes AWAY from the whole line of argument.  It’s counterproductive, and can be used against you.


I think that these kinds of matters come up all the time in the food movement.  Some food leader apparently starts a laundry list, and then it’s passed around.


Most farm and food justice leaders who know better might not notice this, as they don’t have time to browse the internet and listen to what grassroots people are saying.  Or if they hear it mentioned, they might not think it’s important, and might not say anything.  In my case, however, I read a lot of online articles, tweets and comments.  I begin to hear, repeatedly, what’s on the latest laundry lists.  Sometimes a major correction needs to be made, and no one else is making it. So here’s this blog.


Hay is Animal Food, as are Feedgrains, as is CORN!  Farms should Grow them.


This is my point:  a claim is being widely made that because corn is not primarily grown as a human food, all corn that is not human food should NOT be grown.  That’s why I’m raising the point about how humans don’t eat hay (dried grass, alfalfa and/or clover).  Should farms then NOT grow them?  No.  


This is absurdity.  Would they say that farmers should not grow oats (a feedgrain, with barley and grain sorghum)?  Should farmers not grow hay ?  Grass?  


My point is that some elementary logic is needed. My point is that some elementary logic is needed to expose the absurdity of this claim.


The Assault on Farm Income


But why is it being said?  Really.  Why are people saying that farmers should not grow crops that are not for human food, beyond the fact that someone, somewhere, started it.


Well, if you look behind it, you find some good values and ideas that respond to some big problems that farmers have faced.  It’s like this.  Congress, often led by conservative “farm state” leaders on the Agriculture Committees, massively assaulted farm income by drastically reducing (1953-1995) and eliminating Price Floors and Set Asides (supply management) for feedgrains and other commodity crops.  This then led to massive secret (to the Food Movement and Mainstream media, but NOT secret to farmers,) de facto subsidization of the Agribusiness-Output- Complex (ie. grain and other commodity buyers) via cheap, even below cost, farm market prices.  (Farm commodity supplies and prices do not self correct very well at all in deregulated “free” markets, so they are usually low without adequate Price Floors and Set Asides.)  The ag power complex, of course, has been increasingly funding farm-state Congressional Campaigns, against the interests of farmers.


A  major result of all of this is that most farmers have gone out of business.  Running farmers out of business, we must assume, was a major part of the plan of these farm-state Congressional leaders.  Corporations certainly were explicit about it, labeling farmers as “excess resources,” and even calling for reductions in the farm labor force of “one third in a period of not less than five years.”  


Ok, are you still with me.  Ok, why is it being said?  Why are so many Food Movement activists saying farmers should not grow hay (I mean feed, you know, feedgrains, well, yea, CORN).  


Well, we have this cheap corn (and other crops,) which then, as above, subsidizes a whole lot of bad things: the US losing money on farm exports; export dumping on farmers all across the world, including Least Developed Countries which are 70% rural (the US is the global “price leader,” price setter); cheap bad ingredients for junk food, such as high fructose corn syrup and transfats; feed for CAFOs, leading to the removal of livestock from diversified farms, and their concentration in giant corporate animal factories.  


But when I say “subsidizes,” I don’t refer to the subsidies to farmers to compensate for a small part of the reductions.  I mean that low corn prices serve as a form of subsidization to those who buy them.


Divide and Conquer


Ok, so first, there are these bad things associated with corn.  And second, farmers fought back against it for decades, calling for support from urban food consumers, and taxpayers.  But then, not much of a movement showed up over a number of decades, and all farmers got were some subsidies to compensate for a small part of the reductions, and as subsidies were increased over time, the reductions were increased even more.  Subsidies then became a great diversion away from the real issue of Congressional injustice against farmers for the benefit of Agribusiness buyers.  They were used to divide and conquer farmers.


Subsidies then became the great divide and conquer strategy for Mega Agribusiness interests as urban consumers finally joined the fight, and this is the root issue we’ve been looking for here.  Most fundamentally, it has led to a false paradigm of what the farm bill is and why we have it.  According to the myth, the farm bill was started to give subsidies to farmers on a temporary basis.  In fact, however, the Farm Bill was started to address a permanent problem that had been seen for 60 years prior to the Great Depression, the lack of price responsiveness in deregulated “free” markets, especially for major farm commodity crops, as described above.  It did this with supply management and Price Floors (to protect crop farmers,) and Price Ceilings (to protect consumers, livestock suppliers and agribuisness buyers).  (Additional programs provided marketing agreements for fruits and vegetables.)  


The myth then holds that the key issues today are about how the Farm Bill spends money.  We then see that commodity crops receive a lot of subsidies, so this appears to be an injustice in favor of farmers.  


The real picture is much bigger.  Hidden from view in this paradigm are the impacts of market management reductions, (of price floors and supply reductions [as needed]).  These add up to massive amounts, perhaps $4 trillion or about eight times as much as subsidies.  We see then that the picture of injustice is reversed.  Commodity farmers had $8 taken away (by Congressional action, but in the market place) for each $1 given (by Congress, in the budget). No subsides were needed prior to the reductions nor would any be needed today if the injustices were fixed. 


A further myth is that the top 10% of subsidy recipients are “large industrial scale farm operations,” (for example, in a recent article on the topic).  No evidence is provided anywhere I’ve seen on this topic other than the relative fact that the largest recipients get much more than the smallest. In fact, however, when realistic standards are used, the top 10% is found to consist of small full-time family farms and other farms, larger or smaller, that are quite similar to these in size and structure. In contrast, the so-called neglected small farms, are tiny fractions of a very minimal full-time size.  For example, the point one third up from the bottom is only about 1% of the size of a minimal hardly full-time, 200 acre corn and soybean farm. That’s one third of recipients who are, at most, only 1%.  At the 50% mark the figure is just 3.3%.  At 80% it’s just 7.7%.  


We see then that small full-time farms (and large,) that have had massive historical exploitation by agribusiness are attacked as if they, themselves were giant agribusiness, while the mega exploiters themselves are totally ignored. 


The bottom line is that this collection of myths leads well-meaning people go completely against their own values and viciously attack small family farms that happen to grow crops like corn and soybeans.  The claim that farmers should grow nothing except food crops arises from this context.



The Assault on Sustainability (by Good People Divided Away)


All of these Congressional actions, and the consequences of them, have then led to a massive change in farming systems that has favored huge increases in business for the Agribusiness-Input-Complex (selling pesticides, fertilizer, seeds, machinery, etc. to farmers).  This, of course, is the other side of the funding of the Congressional Campaigns of farm-state Agriculture Committee members, also against the interests of farmers.  


The reverse side of the AgBiz benefits is that the changes have led farmers away from sustainability, as follows.  First, poverty prices have made it hard for farmers to afford conservation practices.  Beyond that, however, as farmers have lost their value-added livestock to CAFOs, they’ve lost their work, the use of their labor, and have needed more land in order to stay the same size financially (ie. without livestock income).  More to the point, without livestock, farmers lost the need for livestock feeds (ie. for themselves).  They lost the need for pastures and hay, the crops that best protect the soil.  They also lost a need for straw, and the small feed grains from which it comes, (ie. oats & barley).  


Meanwhile, with cheap corn, the giant animal factories were mainly feeding corn and soybeans, so the market for corn grew and the market for the small grains and hay got smaller. 


Farming 101.  A major result of all of this, then, is that farmers lost big economic reasons for utilizing production systems featuring Resource Conserving Crop Rotations.  A crop rotation is where farmers change crops from year to year, to reduce weeds, insects and other pests associated with individual crops, to take sustainable forms of nitrogen fertilizer free from the air, and for other benefits.  Planting “corn on corn,” planting corn again on the same land as last year, requires more pesticides and more purchased fertilizers than planting corn following soybeans, and if corn follows alfalfa or clover, the benefits are even better.  For my transition to organic methods, for example, I started with oats, a feedgrain, planted with red clover.  Oats helped protect the soil as the red clover started to grow.  The oats then matured, (died,) and was harvested leaving straw, which I harvested, and then the clover kept growing as the next crop.  The clover was then dried and harvested as hay. In one section, then, my rotation is small grain-hay-corn-beans, and in another section it’s small grain-hay-corn-beans-corn. 


The importance of feed crops (and livestock) to sustainability (to Resource Conserving Crop Rotations, the biggest factor in sustainability,) is strongly affirmed both by the Farm Justice Movement and by the Sustainable Agriculture Movement.  I find much less mention of it in the Food Movement.  In fact, in the food movement, I find strong opposition to these core features of organic farming and general sustainability, not directly, but indirectly.  The indirect opposition comes in suggestions, like here, that farmers should’t grow corn, (and by implication, other crops,) for feed, because humans don’t eat it.  Additional opposition to the fundamentals of sustainability (Farming 101) shows up frequently in the form of blanket opposition to livestock production, including dairy, such as with the “Meatless Monday” campaign of the vegetarian group, the Center for Science in the Public Interest.


Farmers Shouldn’t Grow Corn?  That’s Incredibly Naive!


We need a balanced agriculture, starting with a balanced Farm Bill. We must not “throw the baby out with the bathwater.”  Our thinking must be holistic, not narrow.  Quick fixes and knee jerk reactions are not the answer.  On these grounds it is crucial for the Food Movement to understand both the ecology and the economics of farming, and especially to understand the economic foundations for ecological agriculture.  


What, then would be the impact of not growing feed crops, (including corn)?  What would be the impact of not raising livestock?  The answer is clear:  a major move in those directions would lead to massive destruction of the food system, both in the US and globally.  The US has huge regions of land that are best suited for livestock grazing, and that should certainly NOT be plowed up to plant vegetables.  Likewise, my state of Iowa, if the climate would permit it, could grow about all of the fruits and vegetables for all of the United States.  To seriously attempt to move in that direction any time soon, however, would result in massive overproduction of fruits and vegetables driving farmers into a acute Great Depression.  To put forth such a goal would be sheer nonsense.  It’s incredibly naive.  Food Movement leaders must put an end to this very widespread way of thinking.  It portrays their whole movement as uninformed and irrational.


The Latest Fashion in Farmer Bashing


Beyond the destructive impacts, the suggestion that farmers not grow feeds is a growing part of the current fashion in farm bashing and farmer bashing.  This too is hugely misguided and counterproductive.  What is more, it is only happening because of other massive myths being perpetuated by the Food Movement, specifically, those about farm subsidies.  Farmers have received farm subsidies because they have long had very little clout, even with their own farm state Agriculture Committee members.  Subsidies compensate farmers with a very small fraction of the amount that farm prices were lowered (to secretly subsidize the agribuisness complex).  Subsidies are not what benefit agribusiness, nor do they cause low farm prices. Those massive issues, the “fires” that are burning down our farms and causing widespread further damage to our food system, are not at all caused by these subsidy “firetrucks.”  Likewise, most of the subsidies go to family-sized and structured farms, or farms that are not much different from these farms, which make up the majority of those farms concentrated in the top 10% of the Farm Subsidy Database.  Meanwhile, the many farms  in the bottom 80% of the Database are only, (at most,) about 7% of the size of a very small sub-full-time farm at the 10% mark. On the other hand, the hidden beneficiaries with benefits eight times larger than all farm subsidies, (if you use a traditional “fair trade” standard to calculate it,) are massively larger and more concentrated.  Their benefits are much bigger than even than the largest recipient in the farm subsidy database (which is a a co-op representing thousands of smaller farmers).  They get more yearly, (but off books,) than ALL of Farm Bill Spending (not just the costs of the much smaller Commodity Title).


The Food Movement continues to side with agribusiness against farmers, unknowingly.  The suggestion that farms should not grow feeds is just the latest episode among the continuing gross misunderstandings that support that massive reverse advocacy.  This is a massive failure of the Food Movement.  It must stop.




See my various blogs, “Farm Bill Primer” “Food Crisis Primer” and Farm Bill data slides for additional footnotes and documentation supporting the points in this blog, here:  http://www.zcomm.org/zspace/bradwilson.


If you prefer more of my video, go to my YouTube Channel, here:  http://www.youtube.com/user/FireweedFarm#p/p.






Leave a comment